Poets & the Three Unities

Three Unities

Sprawling tree roots support the central tree.




Writing can sprawl into unnecessary digressions.

The struggle for writers is to keep that sprawl focused so that every element seeds ideas relevant to the theme.

When relating the story of father killing daughter, wife killing husband in revenge, and son killing mother to restore a balance, any writer might be tempted to stray away from the central storyline.  Aeschylus managed to stay focused for his trilogy The Oresteia, and he didn’t have the Three Unities to guide him.

I am tempted, just from that previous sentence, to comment that The Oresteia wiped out every family relation or that killing doesn’t restore balance to the scales of justice, even in Greek myth with its differences between revenge and justice and its taboo on kin-killing.  See?  It’s hard to let things go.  Orestes had to argue with the Furies to get them to leave him alone for re-balancing the scales of justice.  And Aeschylus took three dramas to tell that one story.

Action. Time. Place.

Aristotle laid down the law about the Three Unities.  These three “laws” help structure any writer’s work.

To create the law of Three Unities, Aristotle looked at the most impressive dramas (tragedy and comedy) and classified the reasons for their success.

The story should focus on one action occurring over a tightly controlled time frame within a closely bounded place.  For ancient dramas, this meant one conflict occurring during one day and situated in one place, such as the front steps to a palace.

The law of the Three Unities, however, is not limited to ancient Greek dramas.

Novelists are similar enough to dramatists that no persuasive evidence is necessary.  Short stories maintain a tighter control on all three elements while novels might address one single conflict (with subplots) over several days yet still in a closely-bounded culture.

The James Bond sagas focus on one antagonist to be defeated with a close-monitored ticking clock within the culture of the British spy game.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring saga seems to sprawl all across Middle Earth [place] as the Fellowship gathers allies in order to defeat Sauron [action] before he becomes too powerful [time].

When poets work with the Three Unities, something unexpected and extraordinary occurs.

Frost and the Three Unities

Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific” presents Aristotle’s Three Unities.

Action:  God considers re-making the world as he did with the Deluge.

Place: The great ocean crashes on to a shoreline saved only because it is “lucky in being backed by continent”.

Time: “A night of dark intent / Was coming”, and it could be that the dark night might turn into an age of destruction.

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the light was spoken.

Several of Frost’s poems use the Three Unities to control their meaning.
  • “Acquainted with the Night” and “Design” are examples of two sonnets controlled by Action, Time, and Place.
  • His narrative poem “Home Burial” reads like an ancient Greek drama. Husband and wife have lost their future together since the day (Time) she watched him bury their child in the family cemetery (Place).  He cannot express his emotions;  she cannot control hers. (Action)
  • Frost’s found poem “Out, Out—” is a Greek tragedy of futility and unexpected disaster. The son is cutting wood while the sister stands close by (Place).  Since the boy does not keep close watch on what he is doing (classic hubris:  challenging Fate), the chainsaw leaps out to take his hand (Action).  His death at the end of the day (Time) with the understated line of “little – less – nothing” has all the inexplicable mystery of Doom.
  • “My November Guest” reports the Action as a conversation between a man and his love: “My Sorrow when she’s here with me, / Thinks these dark days of autumn rain / Are beautiful as days can be . . . She talks, and I am fain to list”.  The Time is the unexpected beauty of November, and the setting is the simple beauty of the land:  “the bare, the withered trees” and “silver now with clinging mist”.
  • “Mending Wall” is another unexpected use. Two neighbors are in unexpressed disagreement over the wall between their properties:  one is instinct, delighting in the fairy shifts to the rock wall, while the other is plodding logic that dislikes sudden changes.  They meet on an appointed day (Time) and repair the wall (Place & Action).

Millay and the Three Unities

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Time Does Not Bring Relief” covers all Three Unities.

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

The conflict to resolve begins the poem:  her love is gone, and she must go about forgetting him so she can move on.

Time ~ Her entire existence is taken up with remembering him and their love.  Every day of her past year she has tried to forget him only to have her grief renewed:  the rainy season, last autumn, and winter have passed, yet her heartbreak remains acute.

Place ~ Typical romantic places have also served as reminders of him, therefore increasing her loss:  the oceanside, the mountains, country lanes.  We can assume the city from the “weeping of the rain.”

Left unmentioned is Action.  Since time and place have not eased her pain, the Bohemian Millay may move on to action to bring her relief.

More of Millay’s Structural Techniques

A Petrarchan sonnet without the stiff formality of the 19th century and earlier, Millay presents her mastery of the sonnet by providing rhyme we barely notice.  Only occasionally do we slow to read her meter-based lines, which lesser poets must twist to create.

Three coupled images tighten up her structure:  “I miss him / I want him” and “Last year’s leaves / Last year’s bitter loving” and “So with his memory / So remembering him”.  The first two sets are coupled together;  the last set is separated, for the couple is broken apart.

Wrapping Up

Millay constructs her poetry more tightly than Frost does, but both are masters of the poetic line reading like conversation.  With Aristotle’s Three Unities, we can see a bit of their approaches to writing.

The Three Unities become a device for writing.  Skillfully used, the audience doesn’t notice the framework for the poetic lines.

For novelists and dramatists, those Three Unities should also fade into the structure to become unnoticed.

Rhyme and rhythm help structure Pure Verse.  Rhetorical devices from Classical Antiquity structure Free Verse.

Join us August 25 for a reminder of unexpected devices that poets use to structure their works.

Rock Allegory: Lady Fortuna & “Hotel California”

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.  We will also intersperse news about books.

Lady Fortuna and “Hotel California”

“O Fortuna” by Carl Orff seems a strange beginning for a post about the classic rock hit “Hotel California” by the Eagles.

Stranger things have happened.

To remind:  allegories are surface stories which have underlying meanings.

In “Hotel California”, the persona seems to relate a surreal visit to a roadside hotel.  His visit turns ugly before the hotel imprisons him.

Through allegory, we understand that this song recounts a pursuit for fame and fortune that cost more than the persona anticipated and did not wish to pay.

“O, Fortuna”

The lady who draws in the persona to her Hotel California is Lady Fortuna, goddess of fame and fortune, luck and fate.

Carl Orff (a rather uneasy German composer, on his own search for Fortuna with her sacrificial demands) does not consider this goddess benevolent.

Her world is lit by the moon, changeable in its monthly course: “statu variabilis / semper crescis / aut decresciss” (Orff).  In our pursuit of her, we must enter her realm.  She will first oppress her then soothe us.  She takes her whip of servitude to our naked backs, punishes us before she rewards us: (“mihi quoque niteris; / nunc per ludum / dorsum nudum / fero tui sceleris”).

When Fortuna grants what we have sought, we discover the additional monstrous price we must pay.  And we also discover that fame and fortune are empty achievements, material but not wonderful, a “monkey’s paw” of evil wrapped around good.  As Orff writes, life becomes “immanis / et inanis”.

Here is the conductor Andre Rieu’s presentation of “O Fortuna”:

Lyrics with translation are found here: click!

And here is the classic youtube performance of “Hotel California”:

Let’s play 20 Questions about Lady Fortuna.

1st Stanza & Chorus introduces the pursuit of fame.

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night.

People in pursuit of their dreams believe that their lives are deserts that they must drive through before they find where they want to be.

  1. Pick three words in the first stanza that represent the persona’s blindness about where he is heading in his pursuit of fame.
  2. What does the “shimmering light” represent?
There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
‘This could be heaven or this could be Hell’
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor,
I thought I heard them say

3. “She” is Lady Fortuna. Why is she so attractive to people pursuing their dreams?

4. The “mission bell” tolls a warning. In which line does the persona admit to hearing the warning?

5. How is the line for #4 a paradox?

Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place / Such a lovely face.
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year / you can find it here

6. How does the famous Californian city that lures people seeking fame and fortune always have “plenty of room”?

Stanza 2 with Chorus:  Fortuna comes but exacts a price.

Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends.
How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat
Some dance to remember, some dance to forget

7. What does Tiffany refer to?

8. Mercedes-Benz is the best engineered, mass-produced vehicle on the roads. What is the point of the pun “Mercedes bends”?

9. From these two brand references, we know the persona is achieving success, enough that he can waste money. Why are material possessions a waste?

10. What does the line “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget” mean? (Assuming that ‘dance’ is related to performing the job that is winning fame and fortune)

So I called up the captain, “please bring me my wine”
He said, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.”
And still those voices are calling from far away
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say . . .

11. The wine represents the sweetness of the dream. Why has that “sweetness” left him?

To understand the reason that the sweetness left in 1969, you need to know about Woodstock, the Summer of Love, and the change in the music industry.  Basically, music corporations required musicians to “sell out” their purpose in order to make $$ while making music.  Musicians who didn’t buy into the industry’s model of success were shut out.  The persona feels that he had to abandon his simple dreams for something much more complicated and which twisted his original purpose.

12. “The voices [that] are calling from far away” have to do with the persona’s original dream. Which line relates that he is stressed about the loss of that dream?

Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place / Such a lovely face.
They livin’ it up at the Hotel California
What a nice surprise / Bring your alibis

13. Notice the two changes in the Chorus.  How is “living it up” a “nice surprise”?

14. Why does he warn people to “bring your alibis”?

3rd Stanza:  Fortuna’s true cost becomes evident.

Mirrors on the ceiling, the pink champagne on ice
And she said, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”
And in the master’s chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast.


15. Lady Fortuna tells them they are “prisoners . . . of [their] own device”, or as Orff says, “Sors salutis” and “semper in angaria” :: “Fate is against me” and I am “always enslaved” to her. How is this devastating?

16. “The beast” is the juggernaut of the now-rolling success. The master is what controls the success: the audience. How does an audience start controlling successful people?

17. Who has the “steely knives” to kill the “beast”?

4th Stanza: We cannot escape Lady Fortuna.

Last thing I remember, I was / Running for the door
I had to find the passage back / to the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man, / “We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave.”

18. Why is the persona “running for the door” to find the “place [he] was before”?

19. The night man says that “we are programmed to receive . . . you can never leave”?

20. What does this line means: “You can check-out any time you like”?

Answers to the Lady Fortuna Allegory

  1. Dark, colitis, dim (sight), distance, night
  2. The lights from an arcade promoting a performance. The shimmering would be the action of the neon in the lights.
  3. Lady Fortuna is attractive because people believe that once they are rich / famous, they will have no worries.
  4. “This could be heaven or this could be hell”
  5. #4 contains a paradox because life can be both a heaven and a hell at the same time.
  6. People keep coming, expecting to succeed, only to fail and return, making room for more seekers.
  7. Tiffany is an extremely famous NYC jewelry store. Highly successful, highly branded, over-priced:  you pay for the name.  Should we want to buy brands?    We should go for quality that meets the $$ we pay.  However, materialism “twists” us to prefer the brand.
  8. The “bends” could refer to driving on a crooked road. The persona does start out on a “dark desert highway”.  And the pursuit of fame and fortune requires some bend-y actions that we might abhor in honorable daylight.  Or it could be the “bends”, decompression sickness when deep divers come too quickly to the surface.  Rising fame could be making the persona sick as he considers everything he’s giving up and everything he’s hurting.  Nyah, I’m sticking with the highway.
  9. Material possessions only temporarily feed our greed and gluttony. They do not help the persona or others.  Without giving to others, the persona will never fill satisfied and will always seek more and more to fill his emptiness.  This is classic Platonism:  attempting to balance the mind, the body, and the soul through equally fulfilling events.
  10. This is the treadmill that the persona is on: the beauty of the work he loves keeps him still performing but the grind of the work wears him down.
  11. The joy of his work has left.
  12. “Wake you up in the middle of the night”
  13. The persona has paid so much sweat and pain that he is surprised when he finally has the opportunity to enjoy the benefits that fame and fortune have finally brought to him.
  14. Alibis are only necessary after criminal activity.  They are needed because penalties will be adjudicated. Has Fortuna led the persona into evil misbehavior?
  15. The evil and the pain are what the persona has brought upon himself in his selfish pursuit of the lady of fortune. He is appalled at his choices, but he still cannot give up fame and fortune.
  16. Musicians must keep producing the same things that brought the original success. Painters and writers and performers are also trapped.  They cast aside creativity so their work continues to keep the audience happy.  If they do not produce what the audience wants—with just a tiny bit of change to seem “new”, the fickle audience will abandon them.
  17. It’s not the audience. It is the trapped performers, who have come to hate the juggernaut wheel grinding them down and down.
  18. He can no longer accept everything he has sacrificed, all the pain and evil he has endured.  He wants to return to the time before fame and fortune.
  19. Success can never be abandoned. Lady Fortuna’s hotel accepts people through a small funnel.  She takes in only those that can endure the pain, will lap up the evil in a blind acquiescence to the dream, and willingly abandon everything good about the dream in order to achieve wealth and fame.
  20. The only way to “check out” of Lady Fortuna’s hotel is death.
The Eagles
The album cover for the iconic album

Summing Up & Coming Up

I enjoy the guitar solos and the guitar duet at the end of “Hotel California”.  Most people with their “imp of the perverse (as EAPoe calls it) get focused on the lady and the wine and the beast and go no farther.

Understanding the darker elements of HCa doesn’t destroy my enjoyment of the song;  I just have to turn off the intellect and dance around to the guitars.  It is not a happy hotel to visit.

And in my own blindness on dark desert highways, I have often wanted fame and fortune for myself.

Next up, a lighter work, thank goodness.

Join us on the 25th of July for a lighter work than “Hotel California”.  I promise.

Well, it might be a little dark and a little snide.  😉 grn

Occasional Poems: Father’s Day

The day we honor fathers rapidly approaches.  And poems for fathers seem easy until we sit down to write.

Unlike for Father’s Day, poems for Mother’s Day flood the world.  We write line after line of overblown sentiments better suited for greeting cards.  We design them to tug at the heart or evoke loud guffaws.

Avoiding those two pitfalls are the reason that Mother’s Day poems are difficult to write.  We want them to be real, to be personal, and to be touching.

We have the same trouble with Father’s Day poems.

Father and Son, from Wikimedia Commons

And we stumble against another barrier:  We don’t think “sentiment” when we consider writing for fathers.  We should.

Yet tossing in emotion after emotion doesn’t work for either.  Both genders deserve  truth instead of watery pathos.


We have three chief reasons to practice our poetic craft with occasional poems for all**:

1] keep to audience requirements.  Who are we writing for?  Ourselves?  Nyah.  It’s the fathers we wish to honor.

2] keep to the 4 Requirements of Song:  Powerful Lines.  Strong Imagery.  Heart-felt Message.  Clear Communication. 

3] keep a focus on structure to stand out from the multitude of other poems.

(**Occasional Poems for All.  That’s a book, isn’t it?  Filled with all the trite, complacent pathos we could want.  Let’s not fall back on this or on greeting cards.)

3 + 1

For the occasion of Father’s Day, I want to celebrate 3 + 1 poems that present the father in his role as protector.

(And that’s the poetic starting point:  What role of the father will we celebrate?  What does that role require?  What are specific images that represent that role?  Is there a dominant image that we can turn into an active metaphor?)

Robert Hayden: Fathers as Protectors

Hayden gives us the sadness of missed opportunities to express to his father appreciation for his sacrifices, sacrifices that were unknown and unrecognized by arrogant and selfish youth.

Robert Hayden, 1966
Jan Beatty: Fathers Give our Futures

Beatty is all harsh reality, the father’s typical answer to a question when he’s answered it before and is now out of patience.  We laugh—and then we nod, realizing the truth the father gives us.

My Father Teaches Me to Dream

You want to know what work is?
I’ll tell you what work is:
Work is work.
You get up. You get on the bus.
You don’t look from side to side.
You keep your eyes straight ahead.
That way nobody bothers you—see?
You get off the bus. You work all day.
You get back on the bus at night. Same thing.
You go to sleep. You get up.
You do the same thing again.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
There’s no handouts in this life.
All this other stuff you’re looking for—
it ain’t there.
Work is work.

Look again at Beatty’s title.  In giving the title, unspoken is the father’s wish and the child’s realization of how to escape such toil and pursue the career that will create happiness in the slavery of work for $$$.  The gift of the future dream is the greatest gift our fathers give to us.

Cecil Day Lewis: Fathers Let go of the past

Father’s Day poems usually provides the child’s perspective.  C. Day Lewis’ “Walking Away” provides us the father’s perspective.

Walking Away

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

Plus 1:   The Lessons of Fathers Stay With Us

Here is the extra poem, Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift”.  In helping his beloved wife, Lee is reminded of his beloved father and a practical lesson.  Here he writes an eternal Father’s Day poem without making that his obvious purpose.

The greatest gifts for his son are not tangible presents but the intangibles that we carry into the future.

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

Next Up ::  Our Last Occasional Poetry Blog :: Independence Day

Occasions: Mother’s Day: When Audience Trumps Poet

May and June and July are jammed with occasions.

  • Mother’s and Father’s Days.
  • Memorial and Flag and Independence Days.
  • Graduation and Wedding and many other types of days.

For poets seeking an audience, these occasions offer multiple opportunities to practice craft.

Poetic Occasions: 2 Chief Reminders

1] For a poet writing an occasional poem, the most important remembrance is that the audience controls the writing.  Occasions require poets to stretch their abilities without causing deliberate offense to the audience.

2] The poet also needs to remember the 4 Requirements of Song. The writing must be heartfelt without being smarmy.  Powerful lines and strong imagery must keep the audience engaged:  a listening-only audience will break attention faster than a reading one.  Rhetorical devices that emphasize points are especially necessary as they help the audience “hear” the ideas through repetition and climactic ordering.

♥ Maya Angelou’s inaugural “On the Pulse of the Morning” and Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” are perfect examples (one long and sprawling free verse, the other 16 tightly constructed lines).

Here are 2 + 1 poems for Mother’s Day (the 1 is a “just because”) with the reasons they work so well.

Of course, you can always fall back on a greeting card.

Li-Young Lee & the Water of Time

I Ask My Mother to Sing

Li-Young Lee presents the connection of past to present to future, something mothers do for their children almost unconsciously.  Mothers ground their children with who they are and who they come from even as they encourage who they will become.

Lee celebrates this ability.  The women’s joy comes across in the second line—then Lee sidesteps the typical encounter of a poem with a mother in it—much as Langston Hughes did with “Mother to Son”.  The second stanza has the readers wishing that they knew this song.

It’s the third stanza, however, that contains the most power:  waterlilies like a bamboo fountain.  Soothing serenity.

And then Lee has done something wonderful with the title, usually only glanced at, here it is a necessary part, pouring us into the poem, just as the waterlilies into the next and the next and then pour us out of the poem.

Three stanzas, unrhymed, with very little tying the poem together—yet still with a tranquility that draws us back and back.

George Barker’s Occasion for his Mother

Sonnet, Barker announces in the title, and most of us wouldn’t have noticed if he had not announced it.

The first line sounds like the Mother’s Day greeting card.  Surprise comes in the third line.  No woman wants to be described “as huge as Asia”.  “Seismic with laughter”, yes.  Barker gives us the reality of his mother.  He doesn’t gild the lily, for it is not the pretty image that makes up the mother he loves.  She is  a woman who helps the weak and hurt.  She is brash yet alluring, fascinating and courageous.

His mother has her weaknesses, but he bolsters her with “all my love” and a reminder of “all her faith” as she copes with a devastating death, punned into the last line.

By now we are studying the poem, re-reading portions, nodding to ourselves as we picture the woman he describes.  And closer examination tells us that his rhyming is as atypical as the woman herself.

Surprising poems like Barkers draw us back and back—and isn’t that what we want with our poetry?  Readers returning over and again.

Judith Viorst

My plus-1 occasion poem, which actually fits all occasions:  Mothers are known for their advice.  Teenagers think it’s nagging.  Young adults starting their own path to wisdom begin to see the wisdom that flows from the mother.  Her advice may be oft-repeated until we understand the simplicity of the truth.

Some Advice from a Mother to her Married Son

The answer to do you love me isn’t, I married you, didn’t I?
Or, Can’t we discuss this after the ballgame is through?
It isn’t, Well that all depends on what you mean by ‘love’.
Or even, Come to bed and I’ll prove that I do.
The answer isn’t, How can I talk about love when
the bacon is burned and the house is an absolute mess and
the children are screaming their heads off and
I’m going to miss my bus?
The answer is yes.
The answer is yes.
The answer is yes.

Wrapping It Up

Join us on the 25th, just in time for Memorial Day and then Flag Day.  We will look at poems on patriotic occasions.

4 Requirements of Song: “Both Sides Now”

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

4 Requirements of Song:  “Both Sides Now”

Poetry like “Both Sides Now” came out of the 1960’s social change

4 Requirements of Song
Judy Collins’ Wildflowers album contained her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”

movement.  Joni Mitchell’s voice seemed simple while it carried a powerful message.

One of her strongest messages came through “Big Yellow Taxi”, hiding a riptide undertow with its obvious ecology and love of trees (Yes, I’m a tree hugger.  The bark’s a little rough, though.)

“Both Sides Now” speaks more universally.  This version by Judy Collins provides us our lyrics:

Remember the 4 Requirements of Song?  Powerful Lines.  Strong Imagery.  Heart-felt Message.  Clear Communication.  “Both Sides Now” achieves all four without difficulty.

1st 2 Requirements

The Ages of Mitchell through Powerful Lines and Strong Imagery

Stanza I = Clouds

Clouds represent childhood, when we had the time to lie on our backs and stare at the lazy summer passages and dream about the places we’ll go (as long as the metaphorical fire ants don’t interfere with our imaginings).  The shapes in the clouds transport us from our humdrum droning days.

Of course, when big puffy clouds build in, they herald rain (and snow in winter),

metaphors for the things of life that interfere with our “cloud’s illusions”.  Years from our childhood, we recall our lost dreams.

And Mitchell’s last line in the refrain—“I really don’t know clouds at all”—becomes especially poignant looking back with the jaded experience of our maturity.  The line hints at how we went wrong:  we didn’t truly understand what we wanted, what the dream required, and what we would have to sacrifice.  When a child dreams of what s/he wants, that child doesn’t understand the devotion necessary.

Stanza 2 = HEA Love

Stanza 2 moves from childhood to young adult and the “dizzy dancing” mysterious glory of love, when everything is possible and nothing interferes.

Unfortunately, life interferes.  “Fairy tale” happily-ever-after love rarely lasts.

Eiffel Tower in the background
Paris Ferris Wheel, from Wikimedia Commons

The glowing first rush of attraction is not sustainable.  Hopefully, more than the pheromone-driven rush pulls together a couple.  Compatibility keeps the love re-charged;  devotion helps it endure life’s slings and arrows.

This persona never gets past the dying of the fairy tale rush.  She gives two pieces of advice.  The first is a light-hearted mutual parting:  “leave ‘em laughing when you go.”  The second is for broken hearts:  “If you care, don’t let them know.”

Broken dreams and bruised hearts build emotional walls that are difficult to knock down.  The persona comments that love is a “give and take”.  Is that a mutual exchange?  Or does one give while the other takes?  When she laments about “love’s illusions”, we understand the reason those relationships never worked.

Stanza 3 = Life and its Changes

How do we go forward with these emotional barricades constructed of the rubble of broken dreams and bruised hearts?

“Tears and fears and feeling proud to say ‘I love you’ right out loud”: only to have our hearts damaged again.  After a time, we guard ourselves from further emotional pain.  “Dreams and schemes and circus crowds”” only to have our glorious plans fall apart.  After several disappointments, we stop pursuing the hard goals.  We don’t give up;  we just turn aside.

And well-meaning friends see our emotional barriers, see our guarded hearts and discarded plans, and ask why we aren’t reaching out?  Have they not faced the same difficulties?  Or did they never dream and just contented themselves with life’s first offerings?  When that failed, they just shrugged and went to the next.  And they “shake their heads, they say ‘I’ve changed’.”

3rd Requirement

Heartfelt Message: Keep Pursuing the Dream

Mitchell shrugs off the judgments of well-meaning friends.  She just wants a balanced “win and lose” life.  After all, “something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.”

And that’s Mitchell’s truth:  don’t drift.  Happiness and heartaches will occur.  Don’t try to understand them.  We can never understand the magical mystery of life and its illusions.  Just live.

The Poet’s Requirement

Writing “Both Sides Now”

The structure seems simple enough:  three stanzas and one refrain, but this refrain changes through incremental repetition, with each change matching its particular stanza.

Incremental repetition repeats the same words at expected times (the entire refrain, in this case) with a slight change.  The change occurs with “clouds” then “love” then “life”.  Each change represents a different age of life, a clever three stages of life with three wishes for life.

In addition to incremental repetition, Mitchell employs two clever rhetorical devices:  the polysyndeton and anaphora.

The polysyndeton stretches out the first line of each stanza, just as childhood, the beginning of love, and the launching into maturity seem to stretch out:  I > “Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air”; II > “Moons and Junes and ferris wheels”; and finally III > “Tears and fears and feeling proud….”

The first anaphora occurs at the midpoint of each second stanza line with “I’ve looked”.  The sentence then continues with the predominant metaphorical topic of that stanza.

The second anaphora occurs on the third line of each stanza which begins with “But now”.  Along with the repetition and the rhyme, these anaphoras tie the stanzas even more tightly.

panorama view
Clouds, from Wikimedia Commons

Summing It Up

“Both Sides Now” is a clever exercise in the Ages of Man with rhetorical devices.  Keeping it simple becomes powerful with Joni Mitchell’s talent.

Childhood, youth, and adult:  we all have our dreams and disappointments.  Mitchell reminds us that life will perform its balancing act.  She wants us to look at the even-handed give-and-take of both sides;  we gain when we do.

Reality will keep us balanced;  the illusions keep us going.

Coming Up

Still in the works because it’s being difficult (and there’s a lesson for any writer:  if you don’t succeed, switch gears) > > the Rock Allegory of “Hotel California” with a wink and a nod to Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna!” will post in MidSummer.
Before that, we have the occasions of Mother’s Day and Memorial Day and Flag Day and Father’s Day and Independence Day ~ so we look at consideration when writing Occasional Poems.

Join us on the 5ths!